It can be loosely defined as trains operating at speeds of at least 125 mph, with the fastest modern trains reaching speeds of about 220 mph. We view high-speed rail as a multifaceted network, serving a broad area.
Short answer: China’s Beijing to Shanghai line, which reaches a peak speed of 350 km/h (217 mph), is the fastest train running on a regular schedule.
The French TGV holds the world speed record of 357.2 mph.
What gets built depends on what we incentivize, and we’ve incentivized roads and airports through massive public funding and tax breaks. But privately-owned railroads in North America have few incentives to run quality passenger trains.
In our out-of-whack transportation system, federal highway spending leads to ever-more roads and lanes, which makes traffic congestion ever-worse. Meantime, train options remain a low priority for many legislators. Although trains would help solve the congestion problem and reduce our carbon footprint, they don’t have the same political muscle (i.e., lobbyists) as roads and airports.
That’s why a strong show of grassroots support is crucial.
In the U.S., most railroad tracks are owned by private companies that have focused on long, heavy and delay-prone freight trains. The industry has pushed potential customers that require fast and reliable service to use highways instead (both passengers and freight). The result has been frequent Amtrak delays and limited service. The answer is to create better incentives for the private railroads or for state or local governments to buy the tracks. (Amtrak owns some of the tracks in the Northeast Corridor, so the service there is less delay-prone.)
A high-speed line is something completely different than today's Amtrak service. Trains run on dedicated, grade-separated tracks, meaning the line runs above (or below) intersections and is used only by high-speed trains. So they run reliably on time in all kinds of weather. That’s a big win both environmentally and in terms of efficiency, since one busy street-level crossing can create 45 days worth of stalled traffic—and produce 1,800 extra tons of greenhouse gas emissions—each year.
High-speed lines also feed passengers into connecting shared-use lines, making the improvements to those other lines more viable.
France, Japan and other countries have shown that high-speed rail is transformative, but it has nothing to do with the length of their rail lines. And, in any case, many of the lines in countries often cited as “right” for HSR are much longer than most people imagine. Japan’s main line, for example, covers the distance from Boston to Orlando. And China has connected most of its major cities, with a network that would strech from Miami to Boston and New York to Omaha.
What’s important isn’t the size of the country but the will to invest in bold, visionary projects.
When Americans actually experience high-speed rail, the question answers itself. HSR vastly improves the travel experience on nearly every measure. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than flying or driving. It’s far safer and quicker than driving, and it beats (or is competitive with) flight times on trips up to about 1,000 miles. And in an era of intensifying climate change, it has the lowest carbon footprint—by far—of the three options.
Many media outlets falsely reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had “pulled the plug” on the project in early 2019, but California’s high-speed rail project is moving forward as planned. The first phase—the Central Valley line running from Bakersfield to Merced—is expected to be in operation by 2028. In a February 2019 speech, Newsom reaffirmed the state’s commitment to building the Central Valley segment and to moving forward with the environmental reviews required for the full Bay Area to Los Angeles line. Newsom promised to keep working to secure needed funds in the same speech in which he supposedly killed the project.
The Central Valley line will run through the heart of a region that's home to three major universities, 122 community colleges, six of California’s 10 largest cities, and roughly three million people. Long before the full Bay Area to Los Angeles project is finished, it will connect the state’s vibrant interior to the major coastal cities via transit service and conventional rail lines (now being upgraded).
One reason to begin in the Central Valley is that connecting the Bay Area to LA will require tunneling through mountains at the northern and southern ends of the full line. That’s a daunting and expensive engineering feat. Starting with the Central Valley spine will demonstrate the power of high-speed rail and build political will to complete the full line.
We inform, organize, and give voice to the broad coalition of people who want fast, frequent trains in North America. That means we work with state legislators and members of Congress on bills that fund passenger rail and transit systems, and we support high-speed rail projects being planned or now underway—California’s project in particular.
We are currently prioritizing the transportation reauthorization bill that Congress will begin debating in late 2020. More funding for trains in the bill is crucial to the future of passenger rail service in the U.S.
Please sign our petition here.
In addition that nuts-and-bolts work, we create a vision and a path forward for what high-speed rail can look like in the United States.
People unfamiliar with it often think of HSR as just a set of tracks and trains that connect two major destinations. But when it’s done well, HSR is just one part of a tightly coordinated system that includes passenger rail, commuter rail, and buses—all working in sync.
HSR isn’t transformative just because it moves people between cities several times faster than a car or a conventional train. It’s transformative because it improves and multiplies the value of even conventional trains and transit systems. That means it connects and ties together whole regions, not just two endpoint cities. At the same time, it takes lots of cars off the roads.
So we work to educate people about the true scope of HSR’s impact and its full range of benefits.